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The march of the demagogues

By Ad astra

Are you as unnerved as I am by the rise of demagogues around the world – leaders who gain popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the people, whipping up passions and shutting down reasoned debate, who overturn established customs of political conduct, or threaten to do so? Commentators often use ‘rabble-rouser’ or ‘leader of the mob’, as colloquial equivalents.

Today, there is no more observable demagogue than Donald Trump.

Writing in Vox earlier this month, Laura McGann and Starvos Agorakis had this to say in their article: The desperate demagogue – Trump has no choice but to escalate.

President Donald Trump’s closing argument for the 2018 midterm elections represents a dangerous escalation of demagogic rhetoric. If it works, things are only going to get worse.

During his presidential campaign, Trump shocked the media and half of the country by declaring Mexicans rapists and outlining an isolationist vision for America. He also covertly sent an “us versus them” message cloaked in the rhetoric of jobs and the economy…

It was a promise to his white supporters that he would put them ahead of other groups, like racial and religious minorities and immigrants – the very definition of demagogic politics.

This year, Trump doesn’t bother with fig leaves. He smears minority groups, particularly immigrants, with impunity. This week alone, he made comments, sent tweets, and unveiled policies (some real and some fake) all designed to further dehumanize and demonize his scapegoats.

Further on, McGann and Agorakis explain the thinking and motivation of demagogues: Trump’s actions

…looked erratic or even desperate, an irrational response to the reality that Republicans continue to trail in the generic ballot days before the election. It might be desperate, but it’s not irrational. Trump has a good reason to act as he has. It’s his most effective political strategy. And it’s a strategy that demagogues know has to keep ratcheting up to work. And if he’s not stopped now, he’ll only get worse.

“Every demagogue acts voluntarily and through choices. They are not how they are painted; they are not creatures of their own appetite, irrational and out of control,” said Michael Signer, a professor at the University of Virginia who has written extensively on demagogues. “They tend to be extremely opportunistic and shameless and ruthless political actors.”

You will not need reminding of the terms that Trump has used to describe ‘illegal immigrants’. When he authorized the separation of children from families, he insisted that these people were ‘infesting’ America, a term traditionally used to describe pests. He said that Democrats were to blame. “They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13”, a violent criminal gang based in Central America.

Referring to the ‘Caravan’ currently headed through Mexico towards the US, Trump tweeted ”Many gang members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Robert Bowers, the alleged murderer in the synagogue shooting, posted similar comments about the Caravan on Gab, a social media platform that gives voice to white supremacists. In one post, Bowers wrote, “I have noticed a change in people saying ‘illegals’ that now say ‘invaders.’ I like this.” The company Trump keeps!

There is no end to the exaggerated rhethoric. Trump’s media supporters now claim that the Caravan is a health threat to American children, bringing to the US tuberculosis, leprosy, and even smallpox, a disease eliminated from the world in 1980! Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, reports that Trump said that black people were too stupid to vote for him during the 2016 election.

McGann and Agorakis point out that Trump’s message is growing increasingly extreme, but like all demagogues, he has no choice but to continue to ratchet up his worst words and worst behaviour. Although the media see his behaviour as aberrant, his supporters see exactly what they want to see; they believe his line that he’s not responsible for extreme rhetoric in politics or a sense of division in American life. They don’t support him in spite of his behaviour; they support him because of it. A recent poll found that 80 percent of Republicans agree with Trump’s recent claim that the national media has done more to divide than unite the country since Trump took office. A Gallup poll showed that 89% approved of the job he’s doing.

Although many of us question Trump’s rationality, McGann and Agorakis believe Trump knew exactly what he was doing – stirring up emotions among his supporters ahead of the mid-term elections in order to get them out to vote for Republican candidates in an effort to maintain control of the legislature.

Social psychology provides an explanation for such demagogic behaviour. It is termed: The out-group homogeneity effect. It is the perception that members of other groups are more similar to one another than are members of our own group: “They are alike; we are diverse”. How many times have you heard: ”Muslims are all the same”, or ”Immigrants are all the same”, or ”Boat people are all the same”, coming here illegally, taking our jobs, taking our houses, bludging on our social welfare.” In contrast, how many times have you heard: ”Aussies are all the same?” No, we’re different – diverse, adaptable, hard-working, socially responsible, generous, altogether good fellows ready to give our mates a leg up!

Demagogues exploit the out-group homogeneity effect to foster antagonism. It has been found among a wide variety of different social groups, from political and racial groups to age and gender groups. Thus, out-group judgments are overestimated, supporting the view that out-group stereotypes are overgeneralizations. Some social researchers view the homogeneity effect as an example of cognitive bias and error, while other researchers view the effect as an example of normal and often adaptive behaviour.

Image from

Stepping back from Trump and Putin – the Super-Demagogues – we can recognize many others. The election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil marks a new stage of the rightwards slide to fascism and its demagoguery. A frightening number of alt-right players are emerging in Europe: Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary; Heinz-Christian Strache, deputy prime minister of Austria; Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of Poland’s governing party; Janez Janša, leader of Slovenia’s largest party; Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s junior governing party; and of course Marine le Pen runner-up in the French presidential election in France, are some of them. Do read what policies they have in mind for their countries! They bring with them their own style of demagoguery. It should make us all fearful.

Year after year, we are witnessing the relentless march of the demagogues. Their influence extends inexorably. It will not stop. We must be alert. We should be very alarmed. The world is in peril. They are a danger to us all – now.

This article was originally published on The Political Sword

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  1. Baby Jewels

    Yes very unnerved. Worse, are those who vote for these demigogs and the huge numbers of them. I think the world has gone mad. Surely people weren’t always so easily led, so easily led by their most base instincts? The majority of us used to look up and be inspired by noble men and women. Now, most rally behind monsters.

  2. jimhaz

    Demagogues appeal to both those naturally inclined to authoritarians (religious, conservative and the 1%) AND those who are feeling a loss of identity due to the globalisation of labour (meaning high immigration) AND those suffering from nihilism and aggression as a result of technology making Maslow’s basic physical and safety needs too easy.

    I think the last two points are making the other Maslow levels, eg Social/Ego needs, more difficult than last century.

    Social Needs

    Friendships – seem harder nowadays
    Romantic attachments – seem harder nowadays. Expectations of women in terms of men’s behaviour are too high due to out of control feminism and men are being damaged by porn.
    Family – less dependency or need for them
    Social groups – less need for them as the net increasingly tends to fill this role.
    Community groups – more like silos nowadays. Clubs have become casinos, groups like Rotary, Lions are less popular
    Churches and religious organizations – dying due to inherent falseness of spiritual beliefs.

    Ego/Esteem Needs

    The net and mobiles makes everyone an expert.
    Apps like Twitter means that appreciation and respect are always now tainted by those who do not agree.
    Sports participation seems to be decreasing. Professional sports are clearly now corporatised decreasing one’s esteem.
    Authority is no longer respected, so the holders of same do not obtain the same level of respect and social status. Compare the status of teachers 50 years ago to now.

  3. Ill fares the land

    Interesting and frightening at the same time.

    Perversely, I agree society is to blame – us. The demogogue-style leader is very much of an era and I think what is happening is that whereas those crackpots usually get culled out of the politicial process, we are now in an era where they are tending to get more recognition and hence more votes. I am also sure those who advise the demagogues are telling them that there is greater alignment out in society with their twisted values and that then sets up a feedback loop. They pander to the nutcases and get rewarded with the loyalty and support of the nutcases. Trump is vile with his lies, his blustering, his macho posturing and indignant protests about how he is the victim because he now knows it resonates with enough of an audience to give him a serious shot at regaining the presidency in 2020. It works with conservatives because fear is the default state for that group – and it seems to me that in a country where many own guns and drive large pickups, many of those choices are underpinned by a fear of not being a “tough-guy” and the acts of a “tough-guy” leader gives them some comfort – however crazy, hollow and bellicose those acts are.

    It is the same, to a lesser degree in Australia, although the trend is disturbing. Politicians now know how to dumb their messages down to appeal to a target audience and we are far more inclined to reward the wackjobs – or if you are a Hanson, the message is already at a pretty basic (if not dumb) level without her needing to tailor it further to her target audience. How else can you account for the rise of Katter, Hanson, Leyenhelm (sic), Palmer, Anning, Lambie to an extent and possibly Latham in the NSW parliament. How else can non-entities like Morrison, Dutton, O’Dwyer, Kelly to name only a few even get preselected let alone elected. How else can simpering IPA hacks like Georgina Downer get taken seriously?

    Voting for a politician has become much like barracking for a football team – it doesn’t matter what they do, we tend stick with them and our support for them can even grow. A study in the US showed Republican voters who support Trump that his claims the inauguration audience was the largest ever were patently false. And yet even when they saw clear photographic evidence of the crowds for Obama and for Trump, they remained convinced that Trump’s audience was bigger! How can logic and facts defeat that kind of blind support?

  4. New England Cocky

    The Australian MSM subscribe to this process by regurgitating press releases from the about 30 press officers in the PM Department. The editors will not permit fact checking, so “they must be correct”; well, that is what the general public appear to believe. But then Mr and Mrs General Public listen to the shock jocks rather than form their own opinions on matters composing the daily news.

  5. Phil Gorman

    The Ghastly Shades of Fascism

    We learn nothing from history.
    The ghastly shades of Fascism are always abroad;
    again they take on tangible form.
    Whipped up by their psychopath masters
    the barbarians storm the gates of fragile democracy,
    cheered on by the deluded mob.

    And a despairing echo from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.

    “Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

  6. Stephengb

    Would any of our learned readers like to look at historical demagogues and the circumstances of the world they lived that allowed their rise to power?

    I am thinking, is their a correlation between the circumstances that saw the rise of Hitler and the current demagogues.

    There is, I feel (from the news and current comments on facebook) that there is a huge frustration among the uneducated, the unemployed, the underemployed and those that are persecuted because of skin pigment and or creed.

  7. helvityni

    Why is Trump so much against immigrants, after all his grandfather was a German immigrant, and his mum is from Scotland. He’s married to Melania, who is from Slovenia…

    For some reason he lied that his father’s family was of a Scandinavian origin…

  8. John

    Meanwhile the benighted dimwit who bloviates on the pages of the Australian “news”-paper re defense and foreign and claims that “god” is good for you is full of praise for the orange haired moral monstrosity. His effort today would obviously score an F triple minus at any halfway decent journalism school.

  9. Matters Not

    helvityni, re – “Why is Trump so much against immigrants”.

    That’s a fair question but you, yourself, perhaps answered that very question by pointing out he’s married to Melania (at the moment) from Slovenia and she therefore is an immigrant – but worse still his Slovenian mother-in-law is also an immigrant. Perhaps it’s time for a new model?

    But maybe it’s the colour of the immigrant that counts?

  10. Kyran

    Without wishing to pre-judge, are you one of those “glass half empty” types? How can you be unnerved by something you merely have to step on? For all of the ranting’s of the ‘orange a thang’, the ‘Duck à l’orange’, did you not see the seismic shift in voter turnout? By any account, it was up by 31mil. Whether it was UP TO 114mil or UP FROM 114mil is open to analysis, apparently.
    The number of women who not only enrolled to vote, but who offered themselves as candidates, for both the republicans and the democrats. There were Muslim’s, and Indigenous people, and Hispanics, and Homosexuals. Even some ‘Young folk’ got involved. And elected!
    We keep looking for the glass, with no regard for the next bottle.
    Once there was a time the office of POTUS demanded credibility, authority, respect. When George W defiled it, in the tradition of Raygun, it lost relevance. A bit like the churches, who demanded their subjects follow their edicts, with no regard for their principles. When the occupants of the ‘highest offices’ defile, demean, debase and discredit their own offices, how can they possibly demand, let alone command, respect? They ignore the lessons. In the old world, your authority, however ill-begotten, commanded (and therefore demanded) respect. After all, without respect, you can’t have authority.
    The occupants of these once hallowed, now hollowed, halls have now so seriously debased their own offices, they can no longer even pretend they are worthy of anything vaguely resembling respect, let alone claim any authority.
    And we’ve got Scummo, the arse end of the ATM trilogy.
    Do you think these gits will ever change?
    There’s an old expression, ‘You have two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionately’.
    As long as these demagogues keep using their mouths in preference to their ears, the less unnerved I become. However empty, my glass will be half full. The next bottle will either be a good vintage, or seriously corked.
    Thank you Ad astra and commenters. Take care

  11. Kronomex

    The Donald is the ultimate narcissist, he plays to an audience of one – The Donald.

  12. johno

    Be alert and alarmed, wasn’t that johnie howards cliche.

  13. Ad Astra

    Your comments have enriched this piece greatly. Thank you.

    If you need any further reinforcement of the message of this piece, read Brian Resnik’s 8 lessons from psychology that explain Trump’s caravan fearmongering: on Vox:

    In the unlikely case you missed Trump’s outburst at his post-election press conference in which he berated a CNN journalist, you can see it here:

  14. Paul Davis

    Regarding our Second Favourite Demagogue PM Jumbo Morrison, saw this article today on IA website

    “The Prime Minister’s recent comment made about Pamela Anderson’s plea to bring Julian Assange back home was abhorrent, yet the media have been silent about it, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.”

    Apparently this happened weeks back (?) but not a word in MSM….

  15. Shaun Newman

    Focusing on Trump, he has never heard the word “no” in his privileged life, he is as arrogant as sin, rude, rich and up himself so far it’s ridiculous. He has bugger all common sense and why would he have any, he has never had to think, he has had slaves to do that for him, they make the decisions and he takes the credit, as most bosses do on behalf of the employees, which stinks but until we have a revolution that is the way it will continue.

    Turnbull was rumored to have $200 million so compared to the everyday Australian, he is also a demagogue this new bloke is whatever he wants to be this week apart from a member of a weird yank cult – the assembly of god, religious fanatics don’t make good leaders I refer to Abbott of course. What the average Aussie fails to understand is that these L’NP politicians are mostly all independently wealthy by fair means or foul and they actually loathe the working class people who vote for them, but still they do???

  16. Ad Astra

    Shaun Newman
    Trump has narcissistic personality disorder, and is a habitual liar – truth is whatever he wants it to be. He is misogynist, racist, isolationist, anti-immigration, sympathetic to white supremacists, arrogant, rude, and angry, and is a billionaire who never wants for anything, He is incurable. Yet he is the POTUS. He is a dangerous demagogue, whose supporters may well re-elect him in two years. He is what they want. What hope is there?

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